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The 1891 Battle Over a Trolley Along Prospect Park West

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Think the Prospect Park West bike lane fight was the first transportation clash to hit the neighborhood? Writer Keith Williams of The Weekly Nabe tells us otherwise.

Imagine that Prospect Park West, that grand boulevard in Park Slope, is being reconfigured for a more-efficient mode of transportation. People throughout Brooklyn are excited. A group of residents living along this grand thoroughfare, however, is up in arms, claiming the new design will be "dangerous to property, man, and beast"?and is determined to stop it.

Sound familiar? Well, forget Louise Hainline, Norman Steisel, Iris Weinshall, and their ironically named group, Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes, whose two-year-old lawsuit continues to drag through the courts. Their tactics against the popular redesign were played out on this route over a century prior. Meet instead Sidney V. Lowell, Elijah R. Kennedy, and William M. Brasher, a few of the opponents of an electrified trolley system on Ninth Avenue in the late 19th century.

With over 800,000 residents, the City of Brooklyn in 1891 was the fourth largest in the United States. Yet it covered only half of its present area, as still nestled within Kings County were four of its original six towns: Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend, and New Utrecht. (The sixth, Bushwick, had been absorbed into Brooklyn in 1854.) The borders between these municipalities were porous, and public transit crisscrossed the future borough. Austin Corbin's Long Island Rail Road ran on steam; the "local" routes, for which there were many competing lines, ran on horse. That changed in November 1890, when the State Railroad Commission allowed the Brooklyn City Railroad Company to use electric motor power for lines in Flatbush, New Utrecht, and Gravesend.

But those towns were mostly open space: farms, marsh, and forest. Brooklyn's density was the prize. Not only could companies offer cheaper, more reliable intra-city transportation, they could also connect Brooklynites with the many resorts on the waters of Jamaica Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and New York Harbor, boomtowns for a stuffy metropolis several decades from air conditioning.

Enter General Henry W. Slocum, owner of the Brooklyn and Coney Island Road, whose name is known better for his namesake ship than for his exploits in the Civil War. Slocum had already electrified the five miles of track between Park Circle (the southwest corner of Prospect Park) and Coney Island. In 1891, he was looking to convert the Brooklyn portion of that line: straight up what is now Prospect Park Southwest, across the future Prospect Park West to Ninth Street, and down to Smith.

But those living along Prospect Park weren't having it. Their main argument was that electric trolleys would crush pedestrians without warning. Go figure: pulling a lever to operate an electric brake was more reliable than trying to get a horse to stop. There was also the fear of fire caused by falling wires, which had happened on a few occasions in other cities. The 500-volt supply was "enough to kill a regiment of men," according to one electrician. Since then, however, safeguards had been developed to keep dislodged wires in place.

Leading the anti-electric crusade was Sidney V. Lowell, a lawyer and resident of Ninth Avenue. (No word on whether he was working pro bono.) The Park Commission and the City itself were against it?one of the few distinctions between the past and present-day controversies. Also opposed was Congressman David A. Boody, who became Mayor of Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz's historical counterpart, during the brouhaha.

To obtain approval from the State Railroad Commission, Slocum had to secure consents from 50 percent of the owners along the proposed routes. After two failed attempts (and several raucous public meetings) in May and June 1891, he finally won his bid on January 26, 1892. The Commission acknowledged that it "would not feel justified in withholding its approval in consequence of the protests or dissents of property holders upon certain streets."

A government panel holding the will of the people above the whims of a few rich complainers? Many things have changed in Brooklyn since 1892, but that, thankfully, is not one.

So how does one be a good Prospect Park West NIMBY? Let's take a look.

?Keith Williams

Further reading:
· Trolleys, The Forgotten Transportation
· Brooklyn Trolley Cars